Miller’s Crossing (1990) is a too often overlooked mafia film. With this movie the Coen brothers bring their own unique directorial style to a genre often plagued by generic stories and characters. Miller’s Crossing is one of those films that knows exactly what it wants to be and executes it perfectly. The film takes the tropes of the mafia, hard boiled and pulp genres and presents them on screen with perfection and ease. Where other films would rely simply on action sequences or gratuitous violence, the Coen brothers rely on the film’s strong story and acting to drive the film forward. The fantastic dialogue, tour de force performances by an ensemble cast and understated yet memorable cinematography makes Miller’s Crossing a film that stands the test of time. It is a film that I can’t help but come back to, year after year, for repeat viewings.
The plot of Miller’s Crossing follows Tom Reagan who is played by the brilliant and charismatic Gabriel Byrne. Tom is a trusted advisor and friend to Leo (Albert Finney), an Irish mob boss. There is friction growing between Leo and an Italian mob boss named Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito – very recently deceased). The fabric of the town and society are torn asunder as loyalties are tested. To make matters more complicated, Tom is having an affair with Leo’s significant other, Verna, played by Marcia Gay Harden. She is as slick, smart and sly as Tom Reagan and their sexual and verbal sparks strike and rebound off each other in one of the most conflicted relationships in movie history. To add even more fuel to the fire, Verna’s brother Bernie Bernbaum, played by John Turturro, is in hiding since Tom spared his life. Bernie is a treacherous, reckless and downright untrustworthy character who causes Tom no end of trouble. In this movie everyone seems to have something on everyone else and we, the audience, must wait with bated breath to see how the various intertwined situations will be resolved. Circumstances leave Tom stuck between two ruthless crime bosses and under the weight of a massive gambling debt. Will his quick wits and silver tongue be enough to keep him alive against these odds?
With Miller’s Crossing, the Coen brothers have created a believable setting filled with violence, greed and treachery – but also a strange kind of honor. The film is heavily reliant on its dialogue. The script is absolutely incredible. The banter is top notch and delivered so quickly that you probably won’t catch most of it on the first viewing. Memorable lines are delivered in such quick succession that it can be difficult to remember them. Lines like; “I’ve never met anyone who made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride,” “Tell Leo he’s not God on the throne, he’s just a cheap political boss with more hair tonic than brains” and “The old man’s still an artist with a Thompson” are reminiscent of the noir films of old like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). The dialogue sparkles and the screen is commanded by exaggerated characters who always say the right thing at the right moment. It feels as though you are watching an adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel replete with hard hitting dialogue and equally hard hitting action. The fact that the Coen brothers were able to so accurately emulate the pulp and hard boiled genres is truly astounding. That they could write and direct one of the greatest mob films in recent memory and it not be an adaptation, truly demonstrates their consummate writing and directing skills. Their debut film, Blood Simple (1984), is also an homage to the crime film genre, but Miller’s Crossing stands separate from any film the Coen brothers have done for all the reasons stated above.
While re-watching Miller’s Crossing for this review, I found myself looking for themes or deeper meaning in the plot. My conclusion: this film is pure entertainment, nothing more, nothing less. I think it would be quite a stretch to say that this film is offering a critique of the human condition or some kind of satire of 1930’s era America. Throughout their career the Coens have showed their propensity for doing “corrected” genre films. They take a genre – be it a screwball comedy with Raising Arizona (1987), a murder mystery with Fargo (1996), or a musical with O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – and infuse it with a dose of Coen Brothers’ quirky charm. Joel and Ethan wear their influences on their sleeve yet like any true auteur, they imbue their films with a style unique to them. No other filmmaker could have made Millers Crossing. This film may not be a staggering work of social and political criticism like Bicycle Thieves (1948) directed by Vittorio De Sica, but it is no less a masterpiece. The Coen brothers smartly allowed this film to play to the genre’s strengths. It provides a glimpse into life in and around the mob while offering up an entertaining ride for the audience. It is an homage to the golden age of cinema, where stars reigned supreme and movie attendance was at an all-time high. This film is the result of two incredible talented artists at the top of their game.
Every aspect of the film, from the set design, clothing, makeup, dialogue and settings all make you feel like you are in the 1930’s. What Miller’s Crossing does best is make the audience lose themselves in the world that the Coen brothers have created. It is the sign of a truly great film when you are so entertained and enthralled by the characters and action that everything else around you fades away. Miller’s Crossing is not one of the Coen brother’s most successful films but it is by far one of their best . They have created a film steeped in reverence for the dialogue and film style of the past and made it their own. Every facet of the film is polished and anyone who gives this hidden gem a chance will not be disappointed.